Author's Note: Here is the promised longer and angsty story – I hope you enjoy and tell me what you think about it:)
The review replies or some of them might probably be later than usual this time as I'm currently right in the middle of a family crisis and have to care for a family member on top of my work, meaning I don't have much time left and sometimes none at all. I'm not yet sure whether I'll be able to post next week, it depends on the development of my family situation. I'll just have to wait and see.
I want to take a moment to thank all of you who reviewed "Facets of Friendship" and my latest single stories – all your wonderful reviews really make my day! ((hugs))
Another big thank you goes to my editor, Imbecamiel! ((huggles))
Title: The Forest
Author: Silivren Tinu
Summary: On a routine trip to a small village something happens to Aragorn and Legolas that could very well cost both of their lives. Written for Prompt #11 "Hair" on Aragornangst.
Disclaimer: I do not own anything in this story that is recognizable from Tolkien's books. :P
- The Forest -
It had been a pleasant and sunny day. In fact, it had even been a pleasant week. Aragorn smiled and looked at Legolas, who was walking at his side. The wood-elf's gaze was fixed on the green foliage above and around them, and his features were relaxed as he listened to sounds and voices only a wood-elf could hear.
While they had spent the first days of their trip talking and exchanging news about each other's life and experiences, they had walked in companionable silence for some time now. It was rare these days that they were able to simply spend time together without being threatened by any danger. Legolas had come to Rivendell with a message from his father and since Aragorn had just been preparing to leave, the wood-elf had decided to join him on his short trip.
They had set off from Rivendell with some of Aragorn's Dúnedain rangers to check on some villages in the vicinity intending to see if the people there were faring well and if anything dangerous or strange had happened around there. They had divided up into small groups, not expecting anything to go really wrong on this routine mission and wanting to stay inconspicuous.
So far, the worst that had happened to the two friends was a supposed warg-sighting in one of the three villages they had been assigned to. The people there had been close to a panic, but when Aragorn and Legolas traced the beast the only thing they found was a rabid old dog, which had been killed quickly and painlessly by one of Legolas' arrows. Now there was only one village left.
Aragorn knew no one in that village, nor did the rangers have a contact there. The man was quite sure that his elven friend had not yet realized what that meant and he had not deemed it necessary to enlighten the elf. After all, it was difficult enough to drag Legolas into a tavern when he did not know what was coming. Aragorn did not really look forward to it. He could only hope that Legolas would speak to him again before they reached Rivendell.
A sudden movement to his left tore the ranger from his increasingly gloomy thoughts. He saw that Legolas had come to a halt. The elf seemed no longer relaxed, but alert, his gaze roaming their surroundings as if he was searching for something. Instantly alarmed, Aragorn stepped closer to his friend, his hand instinctively closing around the hilt of his sword.
He did not ask anything, knowing that Legolas would tell him what was wrong as soon as he knew it himself. The elf had his bow in his hands now, and his eyes had narrowed, but there was also a hint of confusion in his face.
"The trees warn me," he said softly, "but I do not understand what of." He cast a short glance at the ranger. "They are frightened, Estel."
Aragorn frowned, trying to make sense of what he had just heard. Looking around, he suddenly spotted a movement at some distance between the trees. Legolas turned his head and he knew that the elf had seen it as well.
"Villagers," Legolas said, his sharp eyes immediately able to make out the cause of the movement. "There are many of them before us, but… they do not seem to do anything. They are all men, I do not see any women or children with them. I do not think they are aware of our presence."
"Strange," Aragorn murmured. Without the warning of the trees he would probably not have thought much of it, or would have simply walked on and asked the villagers what they were doing here. But now he was not sure whether it was safe to go on or not. He wished he knew what was happening here.
"Aragorn, they have torches!" the voice of the elf cut into his thoughts.
Torches? Aragorn wanted to say, looking in confusion at the bright noon light around them. But before the word had even formed in his throat he suddenly understood. "Oh no," he whispered.
He quickly turned and took hold of Legolas' arm. "They are going to burn the forest," he said, his voice urgent and breathless. "I have seen this before. They want the land for farming. Halbarad tried to dissuade them from it last year, but it seems they did not listen."
He looked into Legolas' suddenly pale face. "I'm sorry," he added softly. "We have to leave, as quickly as possible."
Aragorn took one step forward, away from the villagers and the fire that would soon flare up. But Legolas stood rooted to the ground, refusing the man's attempt to drag him along.
"Estel, the ground is dry and the trees are, too," the elf said softly, staring into the ranger's grey eyes. "The fire will spread and it will do so fast."
Aragorn sighed. "I know. But it is too late to stop them. We can only try to save ourselves, as long as there is still time."
"But… the trees!" There was pain in the elf's eyes now.
"You cannot help them," Aragorn said softly. "I'm sorry. Please, Legolas, we have to go!"
Slowly, understanding dawned in the elf's eyes and the pain in them deepened. He nodded mutely and started moving, allowing Aragorn to determine their direction and pace. The ranger quickened their steps until they were almost running through the forest, only slowing down to get his bearings and make sure they were heading the right way. He heard a faint, crackling sound behind them, but was not sure if he had only imagined it until Legolas flinched beside him.
Turning to his friend, he saw that Legolas was looking back, his eyes widened in horror. Following the elf's gaze, Aragorn saw that the first trees were aflame behind them and though still distant the fire was spreading fast. The ranger grabbed Legolas' arm again and dragged the stunned elf with him, but only a few steps later Legolas stumbled and would have fallen without Aragorn's firm grip on his arm.
"Legolas?" The elf's movements were far from his usual grace and Aragorn was not sure if he even heard his voice. "Legolas?" he asked again, shaking the elf gently.
"They… are crying out in pain," Legolas whispered, his voice filled with pain and grief. "They are calling to me…"
Aragorn did not have to ask who "they" were. The man ignored the wall of flames behind them, which was quickly moving in their direction, and the glowing sparks that were blown their way by the wind, concentrating solely on his friend. "Legolas, please listen to me! You cannot help them! They would not want you to die, too!"
The ranger was seized by the sudden terrible fear that the elf could simply refuse to go with him, that he would stay back to try and save the forest though that was beyond anyone's power now. Legolas was confused and the suffering of the trees and their voices seemed to be nearly all he was aware of. Aragorn cursed himself for taking Legolas along on this trip at all and for leading him to this village, though he had known about the slash-and-burns.
Just when he was starting to wonder whether he would be able to overpower his friend and carry him out of the forest, the elf's eyes cleared and he straightened a bit. "We have to hurry," he said quietly. "The fire is moving fast and the wind will carry it our way."
Though pain was still etched in the elf's features and his face was very pale, Aragorn felt a wave of relief wash over him. He nodded and risked another glance back. The crackling and roaring of the fire could now clearly be heard and flames were beginning to dance on the branches of a fir tree near them whose dry bark had been showered by sparks. The ranger tore his gaze away from the image of destruction.
He turned and ran, Legolas close at his side. More and more sparks began to rain down on the trees around them and in front of them as the fire spread behind them and the wind increased. Aragorn had one hand on his friend's arm again, supporting the elf and making sure that he did not stop. He tried to steer them in the direction they had come from, but it became increasingly difficult to remember the way and avoid the burning trees around them.
Aragorn wished that Legolas, who usually had an unerring sense of direction in any forest could have led them, but the elf needed his entire strength to distance himself from the pain of the trees and perhaps offer comfort to them in whatever small measure he could. The increasing heat, the smoke, the roaring fire behind them and the small fires all around them did not help any to make the ranger's task easier.
The man could have sworn that the forest had been much smaller before, but now it seemed to have no end. The smoke made his eyes water and he had to cough. When they came out of a small group of densely growing fir trees, Aragorn came to a dead stop, making Legolas bump against him. Together they stared at a new wall of fire in front of them, for a moment frozen in shock. They were caught between two blazing fires, both moving towards them.
It was Legolas who stirred first. "This way!" he urged, gesticulating in the direction he meant. This time it was the elf who dragged the ranger with him.
"Are you sure?" Aragorn shouted to be heard over the noise around them.
Legolas nodded and leaned close to his friend for a moment to speak directly into his ear. "There is less pain and not so many screams that way."
Aragorn could easily see in Legolas' eyes how much the suffering and the dying of the trees around them hurt his friend. Wordlessly he caught the elf's hand in his own and squeezed it, trying to give comfort the only way he could. A fleeting, grateful smile was his reward. Looking forward again, the ranger saw that they were indeed headed for a gap between the two fires.
Some of the trees there had already caught fire, but it was still limited to a small part of their branches and had not yet reached the trunks. The two friends ran for the gap as fast as they could. Behind them, a mighty old tree fell to the ground with a crash, and the force of the impact seemed to reverberate in the ground beneath their feet. Aragorn saw a grimace of pain on his friend's face and took the lead again, making sure that the elf stayed close behind him.
The ranger had to slow down to fight his way through some dense underbrush, but he could see that there indeed lay a part of the forest in front of them that was as yet nearly unscathed by the raging flames. Legolas seemed to recover a bit and was able to keep up without any help. Turning, Aragorn saw that the gap had already nearly closed behind them.
A shower of sparks rained down on him, stinging his skin, and the ranger brushed them away. He hastened his steps to get away from the burning branches of the spruce tree above him when he suddenly heard a loud crack. Looking up quickly he saw a large burning branch coming down on him. There was no time to do anything at all, not even turn his head and see if Legolas was safe. The last thing the ranger felt was a searing pain when the branch hit him and he believed he heard Legolas cry out his name. Then everything went black.
When Aragorn regained consciousness, the first thing he became aware of was a dull, throbbing pain in his head. It felt as if a troll had hit him with a large rock. He groaned and began wondering how big the hole in his skull was. Instinctively, he raised one hand to touch his head tentatively. Before his fingers could touch anything, his hand was caught and gently laid down at his side again.
"Do not touch the wound," a familiar voice said, chiding gently. "It took me enough time to still the bleeding."
Aragorn's eyes blinked open. He nearly groaned as the light stung painfully in his eyes, but he did not close them again. His memories were confused and he had no idea what had happened to him, but he at least wanted to see the owner of that familiar voice and find out where he was. Slowly the world around him came into focus again. The ranger noticed that even moving his eyes hurt and he began to wonder if he really wanted to know what had happened to him this time.
Still, there was something he needed to know, something important… His eyes fixed on a face that was as familiar as the voice had been. Legolas! Relief filled him, though he did not know why. He smiled weakly at his friend and Legolas returned the smile. The less blurry the man's sight got, the more he became aware that the face did not look as familiar as he had previously thought.
Legolas' features seemed haggard and weary and his eyes were unusually tired, but there was also something else that was not right. When Aragorn finally realized what it was he chided himself for not noticing it immediately. Legolas' usually long blond hair did not even reach his shoulders anymore. It was cut to nearly half its original length and whoever had cut it seemed to have paid no attention at all to what he was doing.
The ends of the strands were ragged and irregular and Aragorn noticed that they were also strangely blackened. The warrior braids were gone and the hair seemed tousled and dishevelled, framing the elf's face in a way that made it appear smaller than usual. The ranger stared at his friend for a long, frozen moment, then he slowly raised a hand and touched some of the blond strands lightly.
"What happened to your hair?" he asked, and winced inwardly at how rough and strange his voice sounded.
A shadow seemed to fall over Legolas' face as he seemingly relived a dark memory. "It caught fire," he replied softly. "I had to cut it."
Aragorn's eyes widened in shock and then the memories suddenly came crashing down on him. He struggled to sit up, but Legolas immediately pressed him down again. The stab of pain that went through his head at the sudden movement made the ranger gasp.
"I hope that taught you to stay down," Legolas said, his voice annoyed but also deeply concerned.
Aragorn remembered the pain, the weight of the branch crushing him, the choking heat, and the voice of his friend crying out in horror. He understood that Legolas had somehow dragged the burning branch away from him, carried him out of the forest, and saved both of them. His gaze wandered over the elf's hair, his blackened and torn clothes, and came to rest on the slender hands. He took one of those hands in his own and turned it around. There were burns all over it.
Legolas had obviously paid a price for touching and moving that burning branch. Aragorn sighed. He looked up and met his friend's gaze. There was something haunted about the elf's eyes that told the ranger that he would not forget this terrible experience or the cries of the trees for a long time.
"I'm sorry," Aragorn said quietly. "I should never have taken you with me, especially not to that village. I have done this long enough to know there might be dangers."
The elf's hand, which he still held between his fingers, moved until it was able to close around his hand. "That is why I came with you," Legolas simply said. "Do you really think I would let you walk into danger alone?"
Aragorn smiled wistfully at that. "It would be a lot safer," he pointed out.
"I'm not so sure about that," Legolas replied thoughtfully. "If you had left me behind Elladan and Elrohir would have probably dragged me on an orc-hunt to entertain me."
Aragorn began laughing and stopped immediately, raising one hand to his aching head. The hand was once again caught before it could even get near the wound. "How bad is it?" he asked.
"Bad enough that I will force you to lie still for a day," the elf answered firmly.
Aragorn groaned again, and Legolas chuckled. "Perhaps that will teach you to avoid being hit by burning branches for a while," the elf said lightly.
The ranger looked at him and caught a hint of the desperate fear that Legolas must have felt when he saw him struck down by the branch. He knew exactly how the elf must have felt – he only needed to imagine that the branch had hit Legolas instead. He smiled warmly, showing the elf that he understood. "I will try," he simply said.
Looking at the elf, Aragorn found himself fascinated by how changed his friend looked with his shortened hair. He looked younger, but also strange. In spite of the soot and the hasty and careless way in which the hair had been cut, the unmistakable beauty of the Eldar had not been diminished, but something was different.
In this moment, Legolas did not look like an elven prince and a warrior. There was something wild about him that made him look more like a forest-sprite. He looked much more like the tales superstitious men told about wood-elves than as Aragorn had come to know them. He had never seen his friend like that before.
Legolas cocked his head in his very own familiar way and looked at his friend questioningly. "Is there something about my face that I should know?" he asked with a hint of both humour and exasperation. "A second nose, perhaps?"
The elf's words broke the spell. Aragorn studied his friend a moment longer, as if to make sure that there was no second nose to be found, and then he started to smile. "You know, I think you are finally beginning to look like a ranger."
This time, it was Legolas' turn to groan.
- The End -
Until (hopefully) soon,